November 15, 2016

"We have grown very used to the idea of time travel... Although it feels like it’s been around forever, it isn’t an ancient archetypal story but a newborn myth..."

"... created by H.G. Wells in his 1895 novel The Time Machine. To put it another way, time travel is two years older than Dracula, and eight years younger than Sherlock Holmes. The very term 'time travel' is a back-formation from the unnamed principal character of the story, whom Wells calls 'the Time Traveller.' The new idea caught on so quickly that it was appearing in the Oxford English Dictionary by 1914. Wells is described by Gleick as 'a thoroughly modern man, a believer in socialism, free love, and bicycles.' He was a serious thinker in his own way, forceful and coarse-grained, but the invention of the time machine wasn’t one of his deep philosophical conceptions. It was instead a narrative device for a story with two cruxes, one of them political-philosophical and the other imaginative. Its main argumentative point comes when Wells travels to the far future and finds that humanity has evolved into two different species, the brutish, underground-dwelling Morlocks and the etiolated, effete, surface-living Eloi. This, Wells implies, is what could happen if current trends toward inequality continue unchecked...."

From "Can We Escape from Time?" by John Lanchester in The New York Review of Books.

The book reviewed is "Time Travel: A History," by James Gleick. (Gleick wrote "Chaos: Making a New Science." Maybe you read that.)

71 comments:

Tari said...

Best time travel author ever: Connie Willis.

David said...

"A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court" (1889)

Steve Uhr said...

I bet Hillary would like to go back two weeks and kill Comey.

Crimso said...

Best time travel author ever: Robert Heinlein ("-All You Zombies").

Best time travel movie ever: Primer.

Quaestor said...

Isn't it odd that it's the Eloi who are etiolated and not the troglodyte Morlocks?

D. B. Light said...

Yes, remember the Morlocks ate the Eloi. Crimso is right about Heinlein's story. I once tried to explain it to a friend but gave up after an hour.

D. B. Light said...

And Bester, "The Men Who Murdered Mohammed", available on the internet in pdf format.

Paul Snively said...

All socioeconopolitical fantasy—and that's precisely what "The Time Machine" is, as Gleick observes—asks the stupidest question human beings can ask: "What if this trend is linear and were to continue to infinity?" Well, no socioeconopolitical trend is linear, nor do they continue to infinity. Problem solved.

Yes, it is literally that simple.

Re: Gleick, yeah, I did read "Chaos: Making a New Science," which breathlessly reported some "new" science that, having studied physics in school, just turned out to be good ol' complex non-linear dynamical systems, familiar to anyone who studied the three-body problem, which dates to Amerigo Vespucci circa 1499 and is treated in detail by Newton in his Principia Mathematica circa 1687. I was perplexed and disgusted—as much with the equally breathless commentary by people I respected who it seemed to me should have known better as by Gleick's vacuous purple prose. Yes, I understand that it was a "popular work." But I continue to believe you could offer a popular treatment of complex nonlinear dynamical systems in 1991 that didn't act like the subject hadn't been around since at least Newton (in its current mathematical form).

Hell, the end of Umberto Eco's "Foucault's Pendulum" is a better treatment than Gleick's.

EMD said...

"A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court" (1889)"

Yeah. Whoops. But HG liked bicycles, so he gets all the propers.

Skyler said...

The problem with time travel, is that if you travel in time, you'd find yourself in outer space somewhere because the Earth, the Sun, the Solar System, the Milky Way and the entire universe are moving. Yeah, you might move in time, but you'd be dead in a few seconds of arrival unless you have a space suit.

mockturtle said...

Time is only a relative phenomenon. To God, there is no time.

Luke Lea said...

It was not just time travel but travel in evolutionary time. His was the first science fiction to speculate on the long-term future of the human species in a Darwinian framework.

Terry said...

Irving published Rip Van Winkle in 1819.

Bushman of the Kohlrabi said...

I bet Hillary would like to go back two weeks and kill Comey.

Or she could go back even farther and decide to not break federal laws regarding the handling of classified information.

No, what was I thinking. she would definitely go back and kill Comey.

The Godfather said...

Re bicycles: There are bicycles in "Connecticut Yankee". And Twain did ride a bike: http://www.bicyclinglife.com/HowTo/TamingTheBicycle.htm

Ignorance is Bliss said...

...a believer in socialism...

He can be forgiven. Socialism then didn't have the track record it has now.

Hagar said...

"An Outline of History" is great reading until it gets into modern times and Wells start beating his socialist drum.

Hagar said...

Wells also thouight of an "atomic bomb" as early as 1913.

Terry said...

Until early modernism (say, the early 18th century), the idea of time flowing by with no human minds to experience it would have seemed bizarre. To the extent that we believe in a universe that is not human centric, before the Age of Reason people believed in a human centered universe.
John Carey wrote an excellent literary biography of John Donne. Carey says that Donne (1573-1631), on the rare occasions when he wrote about the future, assumed it would be like Shakespearian England until Doomsday.

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...

Someone (George Will?) once casually commented that Wells thought that the lower and upper classes would one day become so different that one would eat the other. Later (the same commenter said), he decided that the middle class was the coming thing.

Larry Niven's A World Out Of Time belongs here. The protagonist is promised an 80K year round-trip, but it's actually three million years, and when he gets back the entire solar system has been rearranged. Earth is in orbit around Jupiter, for starters.

tcrosse said...

What is time?



That was time.

Terry said...

Hilaire Belloc had a famous, rancorous, public debate with Wells about his (Wells) The Outline of History. For all his Catholic partisanship, Belloc was a trained historian (First Class honours, Balliol), Wells was not. As near as I can figure, Belloc objected to Wells' belief that history (or the future) is something that happens to people, rather than something that they create.

Crimso said...

When you jettison everything you intuitively know about time (which you must do to wrap your brain around relativity), it becomes a surprisingly slippery and odd concept. Physicists have pondered for decades why most physical laws work equally well whether time is running backwards or forwards. People have written entire books on the significance of the 2nd law of thermodynamics having implicit in it time moving in only one direction. Our sensation of time may be an artificial construct that our brains superimpose over the "real" universe.

Or, as someone once said, time is Nature's way of keeping everything from happening all at once.

William said...

There has lately been a new wrinkle in the space time continuum. It started with Groundhog Day, but it carried on in the Tom Cruise movie Edge of Tomorrow and continues with Westworld. In this variation on the theme, the time traveler doesn't travel but achieves stasis. Every day repeats itself, and, while the predictable events unfold, the traveler is able to perfect his response to those events. If you have a reasonably humdrum life, this narrative is not so fanciful, but is grounded in reality. That's the challenge of modern life: to use the monotonous cycle of events to buff and polish our dull lives into something shiny..........I think 2001 was sort of a time travel story. The astronaut journeyed along a Möbius strip and met himself in embryo at the end which was his beginning.......What I remember about A Connecticut Yankee, was the the Boss brings a machine gun to Camelot and uses it to mow down the aristocracy. The novel was predictive of WWI.

Original Mike said...

"Best time travel author ever: Robert Heinlein ("-All You Zombies")."

I liked Heinlein's "By His Bootstaps".


rhhardin said...

In the romcom version the guy gets to try different things to win his woman.

The guy isn't being superficial; he's ready to take on obligations. But who knows what the woman wants to hear.

SukieTawdry said...

I love time travel scenarios. So many intriguing paradoxes. Mankind better pray, however, that it never becomes a reality.

Original Mike said...

My understanding of relativity is that it implies that time is an illusion. All of space-time exists concurrently.

Now, I don't believe that, so relativity must be wrong. I've been planning on expanding on this. Someday.

Terry said...

From Ninetween eighty-Four

"Who controls the present controls the past,"' said O'Brien, nodding his head with slow approval. 'Is it your opinion, Winston, that the past has real existence?'

Again the feeling of helplessness descended upon Winston. His eyes flitted towards the dial. He not only did not know whether 'yes' or 'no' was the answer that would save him from pain; he did not even know which answer he believed to be the true one.

O'Brien smiled faintly. 'You are no metaphysician, Winston,' he said. 'Until this moment you had never considered what is meant by existence. I will put it more precisely. Does the past exist concretely, in space? Is there somewhere or other a place, a world of solid objects, where the past is still happening?'

'No.'

'Then where does the past exist, if at all?'

'In records. It is written down.'

'In records. And----?'

'In the mind. In human memories.'

'In memory. Very well, then. We, the Party, control all records, and we control all memories. Then we control the past, do we not?'

'But how can you stop people remembering things?' cried Winston again momentarily forgetting the dial. 'It is involuntary. It is outside oneself. How can you control memory? You have not controlled mine!'

O'Brien's manner grew stern again. He laid his hand on the dial.

Terry said...

I have read that one theory of why time travels in one direction only is that it is because our brains work by breaking down complex molecules into simpler molecules. Our minds can only perceive the passage of time as something that increases with entropy.

Qwinn said...

Larry Niven did a great essay on time travel, in which he proposed the following: If time travel to the past is possible, and it is possible to change history in doing so, then time travel will never be invented.

His reasoning is this: if time travel is invented, it will be used. A lot. Too many good-seeming reasons to do so. And, eventually, someone is going to change the past in such a way that the time machine is never invented. And once that happens, history can never be changed again, and that becomes the final time line.

I have tried but can't really knock a hole in his logic.

Qwinn said...

(Actually, I can think of one way around it. Envision a time machine that requires both a transmitter in one time period AND a receiver in the destination time period. It would therefore not be possible to time travel prior to the invention of the first receiver, avoiding Niven's Law. But it wouldn't be possible to ever change OUR past either.)

Joe said...

Rip Van Winkle
A Christmas Carol

In 1733, there was a book published called Memoirs of the Twentieth Century, by Samuel Madden.

In 1881, Edward Page Mitchell published the short story, The Clock that Went Backward, the first to use a time machine.

Turns out that H.G. Wells wrote a previous Time Travel book in 1888.

Joe said...

Did more reading on this Edward Page Mitchell fellow. Seems that H.G. Wells owes him a lot. To Jules Verne as well.

Guildofcannonballs said...

I just traveled back in time.

Kevin Nealon was singing " gonna go Back in time" because Michael J. Fox and him were in an elevator on SNL.

Gonna go back in time.

Unknown said...

"A Christmas Carol" even introduced the idea of alternate timelines:

The Spirit stood among the graves, and pointed down to One. He advanced towards it trembling. The Phantom was exactly as it had been, but he dreaded that he saw new meaning in its solemn shape.

'Before I draw nearer to that stone to which you point,' said Scrooge, 'answer me one question. Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of the things that May be only?'

Still the Ghost pointed downward to the grave by which it stood.

'Men's courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead,' said Scrooge. 'But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me!'

The Spirit was immovable as ever.

Scrooge crept towards it, trembling as he went; and, following the finger, read upon the stone of the neglected grave his own name, Ebenezer Scrooge.

'Am I that man who lay upon the bed?' he cried upon his knees.

The finger pointed from the grave to him, and back again.

'No, Spirit! Oh no, no!'[Pg 134]

The finger still was there.

'Spirit!' he cried, tight clutching at its robe, 'hear me! I am not the man I was. I will not be the man I must have been but for this intercourse. Why show me this, if I am past all hope?'

For the first time the hand appeared to shake.

'Good Spirit,' he pursued, as down upon the ground he fell before it, 'your nature intercedes for me, and pities me. Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me by an altered life?'

The kind hand trembled.

'I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach. Oh, tell me I may sponge away the writing on this stone!'

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...

People are citing Heinlein, but no one has yet cited his best time-travel novel, Farnham's Freehold.

I mean, there's so much not to like in there, but you have to admit that the time-travel part is pretty boss.

Unknown said...

Well, let's not forget the obvious: Ray Bradbury "A Sound of Thunder".

I mean it totally explains the election of 2016: Somebody stepped on a butterfly.

Mark said...

What is time?

Time is a measure of changes in space and rate of change. Specifically, T = ∆D / V, where T is time, D is distance, and V is velocity.

Space and time are interrelated. Without space, there is no time.

Since there is space, that is, the universe, there is time with respect to God. However, since God exists both in the universe and above and beyond it, He also exists both in and beyond time, which we call eternity. He is both beginning and end, alpha and omega, simultaneously, such that for him one moment exists in perpetuity and all of time is a singularity. From His perspective, specifically from the perspective of Jesus Christ, His birth, death and resurrection did not happen 2000 years ago, but exists right now. To be one with Him, in communion with Him, is to be one with eternity as well. To be one with Him, then, is to be there at the Crucifixion in the present, not in the past. For example, this is what happens at Mass, where the death and resurrection of Jesus is not a distant memory, but is made present in the here and now. This has been the teaching and understanding of the Church for two millennia.

In short, the idea of "the past" being experienced as our present is a great deal older than a century ago. Not only has it been understood in the Church for 20 centuries, the roots of the idea can be found in earlier scripture. I also would not be surprised if the basic idea were mused upon by the Greeks.

Achilles said...

Steve Uhr said...
I bet Hillary would like to go back two weeks and kill Comey.

Comey took the fall for Hillary. He is the front man for the corrupt DOJ that should have prosecuted Hillary. Comey did exactly as he was ordered to by the Hillary campaign.

Terry said...

The ancient philosophers didn't discuss time as time, as much they discussed the concept of eternity. Boethius:

It is the common judgement, then, of all creatures that live by reason that God is eternal. So let us consider the nature of eternity, for this will make clear to us both the nature of God and his manner of knowing. Eternity, then, is the complete, simultaneous and perfect possession of everlasting life; this will be clear from a comparison with creatures that exist in time.
…for it is one thing to progress like the world in Plato's theory through everlasting life, and another thing to have embraced the whole of everlasting life in one simultaneous present.

So, it isn't just that time cannot exist without space, and vice versa, time cannot exist without life. Or so says Boethius, whose own time ran out in 524 AD, when he was executed for plotting against the Emperor Theodoric.
Or perhaps not. Dante put Boethius in Paradise, where he has all the time in the world.

Achilles said...

I could see going forward in time. But not back. My proof is that we don't have a god-king ruling the planet from orbit and we are also still alive.

Guildofcannonballs said...

I started watching The Americans because it is by FX.

The end of a bland sciences scene foreshadowing stuff, Imheard it.

"Mags." Or maybe "... ... .... mags ... ... " but the key was "Mags" and it was.

MAGS!

Boy oh boy that took me back.

Yancey Ward said...

"I bet Hillary would like to go back two weeks and kill Comey."

James Comey, come with me if you want to live!

Guildofcannonballs said...

I started watching The Americans because it is by FX.

The end of a bland sciences scene foreshadowing stuff, Imheard it.

"Mags." Or maybe "... ... .... mags ... ... " but the key was "Mags" and it was.

MAGS!

Boy oh boy that took me back.

Yancey Ward said...

Clearly, the Morelocks are alreayd here and voting for Trump. We just need to sell the Eloi on the new BBQ body washes.

Ann Althouse said...

I realize not everyone goes to the link, but don't assume your observation wasn't addressed in the article. Let me help:

"We should be precise about what Wells invented. Other writers had displaced fictional characters through time. Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle fell asleep and woke up twenty years later; Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee got a bump on the head in the late nineteenth century and woke up in King Arthur’s court. (“‘Bridgeport?’ said I, pointing. ‘Camelot,’ said he.”) In Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, the main character dozes off for 113 years and wakes in 2000; in 1892 the Scots golfer J. McCullough, his given name no longer known, published Golf in the Year 2000; or, What Are We Coming To. Gleick, who has read it so we don’t have to, reports that “in the year 2000 women dress like men and do all the work, while men are freed to play golf every day.” No comment. The crucial thing about these trips through time is that they are inadvertent. The hero (always a man) has no agency. Wells’s Traveller was different because he built a machine to travel through time on purpose. In his story humanity had, through its ingenuity, conquered time. That was what was new."

Ron said...

The Outsiders solved it......

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gaj1wVNvSqk

Ron said...

Note to Althouse: Check out the hair on those dudes in the video! Plus the lead singer looks like Mitch Album.

Craig said...

Terry, "The ancient philosophers didn't discuss time as time" is plainly false. You can find significant writings from the Greeks, of course, and you can even find ordinary discussion of time (and not just God's eternity) in the Middle Age Christians. Time was discussed by virtually all of the significant Ancient Philosophers, and for virtually all of them, time was discussed 'as time', i.e., in a concept similar to ours.

Bob Ellison said...

I like the way Douglas Adams handled it in the Hitchhiker's Guide series:

There is no problem with changing the course of history—the course of history does not change because it all fits together like a jigsaw. All the important changes have happened before the things they were supposed to change and it all sorts itself out in the end.

The major problem is simply one of grammar...


This requires a deterministic universe, of course, but it works, and allows backward time travel without paradoxes.

sinz52 said...

"The Time Machine" wasn't Wells' only novel with a sociopolitical theme.

Wells had conceived "The War of the Worlds" as an allegory. Earth trying to hold off an invasion of Mars was an allegory of the Third World being overrun by European colonialism.

Hehad noted how Western colonialists had subjugated the Third World with their Manifest Destiny attitudes and more advanced weaponry. He wondered how Westerners would feel if another, yet more advanced power, did the same thing to us that we were doing to the Third World.

tim in vermont said...

To the extent that we believe in a universe that is not human centric, before the Age of Reason people believed in a human centered universe.

Oh, I would say 90% or more people only pay lip service to a universe that is not human centric and overseen by a "loving God" who believes in all of their values.

Case in point: feminism. Why would an uncaring universe create men and women exactly equal in every way except those that are physically obvious?

tim in vermont said...

The thing I dislike about time machine fiction is the absolute absurdity of it. But once you get past it, it can be kind of fun. I liked The Terminator as much as anybody.

Bob Ellison said...

tim in vermont said, "...he absolute absurdity of it. But once you get past it, it can be kind of fun."

I've been thinking about this in all SciFi, not just WRT time travel, but also FTL, gravity that's always 1G and vertical to whichever room in the spaceship is on-screen, no spacesuits when landing on planets, etc.

My problem is this: how is it that absurd science works in some movies, and kills other movies?

I enjoy the original Star Trek, Star Trek TNG, Terminator, Star Wars (where the light bullets travel at what looks like about 20mph). Like most people, I get past the obvious science problems.

I can't stand John Carter, Avatar ("unobtainium?!"), 2001, E.T., or The Martian. Can't get past the lazy science.

What divides these groups?

There's an element of leftist allegory in movies like Avatar and The Martian. That's ugly, but Star Trek (all forms) has a lot of that as well, and it doesn't bother me.

I think it's the plots, screenplay, and acting that wins us over and enables us to suspend disbelief. Still, it's a mystery.

Bob Ellison said...

In Terminator, the backward time travel is just a leaping-off point, and little referenced elsewhere in the movies. It comes up-- the major human leader sends his buddy back in time to save his mother, and buddy ends up impregnating her with major human leader...whoo, boy. But the movies dwell on the chases and danger and the terminator characters.

Qwinn said...

Bob Ellison:

Watch Babylon 5. Less than 3% of your normal allotment of lazy science.

Farscape: 800% absurd science, and I bet it wins you over too.

Bob Ellison said...

Qwinn: I'll try both. Thanks.

Graham Powell said...

Re Heinlein's "All You Zombies" - there was a recent movie, I believe called "Predestination", made from this. I didn't see it but heard it was pretty good.

tim in vermont said...

The most recent Star Trek, where the Federation is fascist, sort of bugs me.

"Ya can nae break a stick when it's in a bundle." - Scotty Mussolini.

Unknown said...

Well remember they keep a political officier on the bridge in TNG.

mikee said...

"Wells implies" can and should be interpreted to mean "I have a political point to make and will force any example to make that point."

Wells was a socialist before the evils and perils of socialism were apparent. I will forgive Wells for that. I will not forgive a modern socialist for perverting a story, not about inequality but about nefarious human bondage, into a political polemic that it is not.

Michael McNeil said...

(Actually, I can think of one way around it. Envision a time machine that requires both a transmitter in one time period AND a receiver in the destination time period. It would therefore not be possible to time travel prior to the invention of the first receiver, avoiding Niven's Law. But it wouldn't be possible to ever change OUR past either.)

This is the physical system operative in Isaac Asimov's The End of Eternity (1955) — a very interesting time travel novel actually, and the (time travel causal) prelude to Asimov's famous Galactic Empire/Foundation series.

I particularly like The End of Eternity because it well enunciates one of the principal reasons — a historical and social reason — why not just exploring space but colonizing worlds beyond the earth is critical to the human future. I'll quote the relevant section because I think it's cool, as well as important to think about.

First, though, some prep is needed — as the excerpt left standing alone wouldn't really be understandable or quite fit its intended use here — so I'll fill in the context a bit. The eponymous “Eternity” in this science-fictional universe is an organization of time travelers in the far future which — once established by our descendants) — over ultimately thousands of subsequent centuries of time, tampers with human history in a (basically well-meaning) attempt to “change away” the bad parts — eras of Nazis and that sort of thing.

However, the “Eternity” organization in this story, by so acting thereby inevitably ends up stultifying the resultant “nicer” history (future history to us) — in practice leveling out/eliminating the peaks along with the troughs of human history — so that we, humanity, thereby ultimately (in the context of this tale) lose our opportunity to expand off this planet and make new homes for ourselves (and for human history itself) amongst the stars. Losing our chance, humanity loses heart and ultimately becomes extinct — without leaving successors.

Such a historic progression controlled by a benevolent guiding organization of time travelers (or whatever) certainly does not appear to be what's happening in our reality today! Indubitably there are plenty of bad — nay, horrible — parts in our recent (along with more distant) history.

But Asimov's fictional treatment of an alternative-history reality where such tampering does occur provides a vivid illustration explaining in part why humans should collectively and individually — for historic reasons — wish to colonize other worlds in space — and not just send machines with cameras to vicariously explore them while we sit safe at home on earth.

(Continued below.)

mikee said...

And the best time travel movie, ever, is Primer, a small indie film that handles the conundrums and paradoxes of returning to the past in great, albeit confounding, detail.

Here is a movie timeline description for the movie Primer: https://xkcd.com/657/

Michael McNeil said...


Quoting now Isaac Asimov's The End of Eternity… we enter in the midst of a debate between the two protagonists:

“Suppose Eternity had never been established?”

“Well?”

“I'll tell you what would have happened. The energies that went into temporal engineering [time travel] would have gone into nucleonics [atomic energy] instead. Eternity would not have come but the interstellar drive would. Man would have reached the stars more than a hundred thousand Centuries before he did in this current Reality. The stars would then have been untenanted and mankind would have established itself throughout the Galaxy. WE would have been first.”

“And what would have been gained?” asked Harlan doggedly. “Would we be happier?”

“Whom do you mean by ‘we’? Man would not be a world but a million worlds, a billion worlds. We would have the infinite in our grasp. Each world would have its own stretch of the Centuries, each its own values, a chance to seek happiness after ways of its own in an environment of its own. There are many happinesses, many goods, infinite variety…. THAT is the Basic State of mankind.”

(/endQuote)

Isaac Asimov, The End of Eternity, Doubleday & Co., Inc., Garden City, New York, 1955, pp. 186-187.

Paul Snively said...

Crimso: Or, as someone once said, time is Nature's way of keeping everything from happening all at once.

John Archibald Wheeler.

Peter said...


Well, there's always the possibility of real-world time travel in the form of Einstein's twin paradox, wherein one could travel into the distant future. Although it's a one-way trip.

And then there's the multiverse story, in which what one has is not a time machine but a probability machine, a machine that can travel between a multitude of alternate/counterfactual worlds (i.e. one in which the Archduke's driver didn't take a wrong turn in 1914 Sarajevo). Forking off new universes as needed at least fixes those time-travel paradoxes.

A truism of time-travel stories seems to be "wherever you go, there you are" in that such stories always say more about the time and place they were written than about the future.

Just as the far future in Well's "Time Traveler" is a projection of Wells' Fabian Socialism onto his Victorian England. Does a time-travel story always need a contemporary viewpoint character to contrast & compare the futures & pasts uncovered by the time machine? And, therefore, aren't time travel stories always really about the present?

Just as stories of extraterrestrials are alway really about ... us?

EMD said...

"Mankind better pray, however, that it never becomes a reality."

It never will, or we would have some kind of proof of its future existence.

My only absurd theory is that UFOs are not aliens but evolved humans who have achieved some sort of time travel mechanism. That's why they rarely get involved or land on the south lawn of the White House. They know just to observe.

Crimso said...

"John Archibald Wheeler"

I guess a little Googling would have done me some good!

Einstein contended that if all matter and energy were removed from the universe, then spacetime (and therefore time) would cease to exist. Not that we can do the experiment...

Paul Snively said...

The most compelling reason to believe time travel may be possible in principle is the Gödel metric, a solution of Einstein's field equations with closed timelike curves—that is to say, loops in time. We can't plausibly conduct experiments to falsify this because the energy it would take to do so is far too high.

Original Mike: My understanding of relativity is that it implies that time is an illusion. All of space-time exists concurrently.

Not really. It does say that spacetime is indivisible (it makes no sense, physically, to talk about space without time, or time without space). It also says that the rate at which time passes is not constant. That's the part that tends to throw people, but the experimental support for it is overwhelming.

Crimso: When you jettison everything you intuitively know about time (which you must do to wrap your brain around relativity), it becomes a surprisingly slippery and odd concept. Physicists have pondered for decades why most physical laws work equally well whether time is running backwards or forwards. People have written entire books on the significance of the 2nd law of thermodynamics having implicit in it time moving in only one direction. Our sensation of time may be an artificial construct that our brains superimpose over the "real" universe.

What's even more interesting is that the 2nd law of thermodynamics probably doesn't apply to our universe. People tend to overlook the "sufficiently chaotic initial conditions" constraint in the law, and that there's good reason to believe the Big Bang singularity was in a state of zero entropy—literally as "unchaotic" as it's possible to be.

Personally, I believe we'll eventually see Einstein and Everett vindicated on quantum mechanics, come to understand (our experience of) spacetime as the approximately classical, approximately-noninteracting emergent phenomena of quantum interactions per Everett, and eventually quantum computing will be boring. Right now there's just too much self-serving mysticism around all of it.

Joe said...

"Wells’s Traveller was different because he built a machine to travel through time on purpose."

Edward Page Mitchell still has him beat. Yes, you can still make Wells the first by ever refining the criteria, but it's disingenuous. Thisn't was the only instance where Wells used Mitchell or Verne as inspiration. I don't have an issue with this--all works of invention, including the arts, were built on previous ideas. Sometimes the new work is better than what it built on, sometimes not. But let's not pretend H.G. Wells invented the idea of time travel (or invisible men or going to the moon.)

(And Groundhog Day didn't invent the time loop, though did do it far better than most treatments.)